Friday, June 13, 2014

Turnaround.

If you can figure out the 2014 Royals, well, you’re smarter than I am.

Two weeks ago the Royals hit their low point of the season, what Alcides Escobar called the low point of his time in Kansas City. They got swept at home by the Houston Astros, a team that had lost 106 games each of the last three years, which meant one of two things: 1) the Royals got swept – no, dominated – at home by a terrible, terrible team; or 2) the Astros are not a terrible team anymore, which meant that in his third year as general manager, Jeff Luhnow had accomplished what it took Dayton Moore until his seventh full season to do. The Royals then proceeded to fire their hitting coach, moving on to their sixth hitting coach since the end of the 2012 season.

From May 1st to May 28th, against a relatively easy schedule, the Royals had gone 10-16. They headed to Toronto to play the first-place Blue Jays, the beginning of a much more difficult part of their schedule.

Naturally, they’ve gone 9-4 since.

Which means I really should revise that opening sentence to read: if you can figure out the 2014 major league baseball season, well, you’re smarter than I am. Because if there’s one thing that the first 10 weeks of the season have taught us, it’s that you can throw out all your preconceived notions from before the season of which AL teams are good and which teams are bad, making my distinction between the easy and hard parts of the Royals schedule meaningless. About all we know is that the A’s are really good, the Blue Jays are better than expected, and that the Rays are a mess. Everything else is arguable.

Going into last night’s games, every AL Central team except the Twins had exactly 33 wins; 3.5 games separated first from last. Twelve of the 15 AL teams are within 3.5 games of .500. To put it another way, the 14th-place Boston Red Sox are just 6.5 games behind the 3rd-place L’Anaheim Angels. No one knows anything. The Astros aren’t that bad. The Tigers aren’t that good.

Ah yes, the Tigers. The Tigers, who started the year 27-12 and had me writing off the Royals – or any other AL Central team’s – divisional title hopes completely. It’s not that I expected the Tigers to play .692 ball the rest of the way – it’s that they had built such a lead that, if they were to simply go 62-61 the rest of the way, they would win 89 games. And I figured that a team that starts 27-12 – and has won the last three AL Central crowns – is probably going to do better than 62-61.

Instead, the weaknesses that were apparent in their roster prior to the season – and that they somehow rendered irrelevant for 39 games – finally showed up expecting payment with interest. The kryptonite of Dave Dombrowski’s SuperGM act – his inability to build a bullpen, and his strange willingness to overpay for veteran closers – has been brought out of hiding. Joe Nathan, who had a 1.39 ERA last year and got a two-year, $20 million contract this winter, has an ERA over 7. The Tigers’ bullpen as a whole has a 4.68 ERA, which is the worst in baseball. And their inexplicable hubris after Jose Iglesias went down – content to completely punt the shortstop position rather than sign the Stephen Drew that was just sitting there – has burnt them badly. Their shortstops have combined to hit .204/.267/.277 and are 8 runs below average defensely according to Baseball Info Solutions. Last week they turned to Eugenio Suarez, a prospect of modest status, after just 13 games in Triple-A. It might work; knowing the Tigers, it probably will.

But in the meantime, after starting the year 27-12 the Tigers went 6-16 before winning last night. Put it this way: if the Royals had won just one of the five games between the two teams, they would have been tied for first place before last night’s game. Against the other 28 teams in baseball, the Royals are 33-27 and the Tigers are 29-28.

Beyond the wins and losses, the Royals look to be in a much stronger position than they were two weeks ago. When Yordano Ventura walked off the mound on May 26th, I didn’t expect to see him on a mound again until July of 2015 or so. The Royals waved off the injury with almost shocking insouciance, and it was fair to be skeptical of their claims that Ventura only needed to miss one start. This is a franchise that has downplayed setbacks to minor league pitchers like John Lamb and Kyle Zimmer over and over again.

But if there are two guys in the organization who I trust, they are Nick Kenney and Kyle Turner, and sure enough Ventura was back on the mound ten days later. He’s won both of his starts since, although I think it’s relevant to point out that 1) he has struck out just four batters in 13 innings since returning and 2) according to his velocity charts, his average fastball velocity is down about 1 mph compared to before his elbow hurt. If that’s just a case of Ventura being a little more careful about airing out his arm, it’s no big deal. If that’s a sign that his arm isn’t 100%, that’s a problem. For now, it merits watching.

Equally concerning was Danny Duffy’s arm after he got bombed on May 28th with a fastball that dropped from his usual 94 mph average to around 92 mph. The Royals once again downplayed it as a “dead arm”, and once again subsequent events have proven them right – Duffy’s velocity returned to normal his next time out, when he allowed one hit in six innings. As important as this 9-4 stretch has been to the Royals, having their two best young starters apparently healthy – when the health of both of them was very much in question the last time I wrote – is even more important in the long run.

And while Ventura and Duffy appear healthy, they were healthy before their last start of May and the Royals were still 24-28. What’s made the difference is that the lineup, starting the day Dale Sveum was hired, has actually resembled a major league caliber offense. The Royals have scored 60 runs in 13 games with Sveum as their hitting coach, or 4.62 runs per game. In their 52 games before that they had scored just 197 runs, or 3.79 runs per game. I’m certainly not attributing improvement in that small a sample size to Sveum – but it’s a happy coincidence for the Royals, at least.

The end result is that a franchise which was teetering on a revolution two weeks ago – forget the fan base or deranged bloggers, even Ken Rosenthal had written an article hinting that a major shake-up might be necessary soon – has righted the ship. It’s symbolic that after enduring a six-game losing streak by Memorial Day for each of the previous ten years, the Royals have so far avoided such a fate this year. They came right up to the line – they lost five in a row and then needed extra innings in San Diego to avoid a sixth straight loss – but so far they’ve been able to stop the bleeding.

The Royals might be surprised to learn that the #1 complaint I received to my column in the KC Star was that I didn’t go far enough. When I wrote that, “Moore deserves a little more time to turn this season around — if the team goes on a stretch where it wins 15 out of 20, as the Royals did last year, they might lead the wild-card race and quiet their critics,” I heard from a lot of people that I was being soft on the front office for not demanding they clear out their desks immediately. The criticisms were neatly summed up by Scott McKinney’s comment at the very end of this thread:

“So at the end of June, the Royals will probably be a little higher in the standings than the[y] are now, and Rany will still not be calling for Moore to be fired. I admire his restraint.

In all honesty, Rany is being as patient, and thus as incompetent, with regard to Dayton Moore as David Glass has been.”

Well, it’s not even the middle of June yet, but the Royals are alone in second place, 2.5 games out of first place and a game out of the wild card, and guess what, Scott? I’m still not calling for Moore to be fired yet. And you know why? Because they’re alone in second place, 2.5 games out of first place and a game out of the wild card. That’s the way the world works. After eight years, Moore needs to be judged by the performance of his team today rather than the potential of his team tomorrow. But at least at the moment, the performance of his team doesn’t merit a housecleaning.

I’m not entirely convinced that will remain the case. The Royals are above .500 but have been outscored by eight runs on the season; more concerning, they have scored more runs than expected from their underlying performance and they have allowed fewer runs than expected from their underlying performance. According to Baseball Prospectus’ adjusted standings page, the Royals second-order winning percentage – what their winning percentage should be based on the number of singles, doubles, homers, walks, etc. they’ve both scored and allowed – is .444. That’s terrible – the equivalent of a 72-90 record. There may be good reasons for the discrepancy between how the Royals have played and how they should have played, but I remain leery that the Royals can play better than they have, which is something they’ll need to do if they want to reach the playoffs.

But for the moment, at least, they’re in it to win it. Talk of trading James Shields has stopped, although there are still seven weeks until the trading deadline. Speaking of Shields, as I am legally required to bring up The Trade at every opportunity, I should link to Sam Mellinger’s excellent piece here, which I almost entirely agree with. To wit: it’s still too early to declare a winner. If the Royals go to the real* playoffs this year – with Shields starting Game 1 of the playoffs (or winning the Wild-Card game) and Wade Davis the eighth-inning shutdown option, I will happily declare victory for the Royals. Ending a 29-year playoff drought is a legacy no one can take away from Dayton Moore.

*: As I’ve said before, if the Royals reach the Wild-Card game but lose – particularly if Shields starts the game – the legacy of the trade becomes much more ambiguous. Is half a playoff spot still a playoff spot? How you answer that will determine how you view the trade.

But can I just say that people who keep harping on Wil Myers’ performance (or lack thereof) this season are missing the point? If Myers were raking, but the Royals were running away with the AL Central, most people would say that the trade was worth it – and they’d be completely justified. The Royals made the trade not to get rid of Myers, but to acquire Shields, and they acquired Shields with one purpose: to make the playoffs in 2013 or 2014. That’s why I get so rankled when the Royals distance themselves from those playoff expectations. Myers didn’t hit well at all this year – although he still has a higher OPS than Nori Aoki! – and then hurt his wrist, so 2014 may well be a lost season for him. But in 2015, he’ll be a 24-year-old starting right fielder for the Rays, and the Royals’ starting right fielder will be…uh, we’ll get back to you on that.

Wade Davis has been as dominant as any reliever in baseball this year…but keep in mind that to acquire Aoki – to replace Wil Myers’ bat in the lineup for just one season – the Royals surrendered Will Smith, who has a lower ERA (0.88) than Davis (1.23). I’d rather have Davis too – but after this season, the Royals will have to pay Davis $25 million for the next three years if they choose to keep him. Smith, meanwhile, won’t be arbitration-eligible until 2016. I highly doubt that the Brewers would trade Smith for Davis straight-up today.

We’re getting deep into the weeds here, and we haven’t even mentioned Jake Odorizzi. I’m not trying to build a trench around my position that the Royals got screwed in the trade. On the contrary: I’m acknowledging that if they make the playoffs this year, and if (as is likely) they would not have made the playoffs with Myers and Odorizzi, the trade may prove to be everything the Royals expected it to be, and I may owe Dayton Moore a huge apology. But that depends very little on what Myers is doing in Tampa Bay, and very much on what the Royals are doing in Kansas City.


Two weeks ago, what they were doing was getting their ass kicked by a team that’s five years behind them in their rebuilding process, and harsh criticism was warranted. Today, it’s not entirely clear what the Royals are doing. Which is a good thing. They’ve got a little more than three months to justify the trade. More importantly, they’ve got a little more than three months to bring playoff baseball back to Kansas City for the first time in a generation. If they do the latter, I’ll suck up my pride and admit I was dead wrong about the former.

16 comments:

Rick Mathieu said...

my biggest criticism of Dayton Moore is he didn't have the balls to blow up the entire franchise when he took over. Instead, he 'kind of' tried to win. Rather than trading the replacement level guys who were on the major league club to re-stock the minor league system and hope you get lucky with one or two of them, he tried to plug holes where he could and just re-stock the minors through the draft. While eventually that process paid off, when we had the most top 100 prospects it still hasn't paid off for the big club. Conversely teams like the Rays, Pirates, Rangers, Marlins, A's and Astros made the decision to regularly trade their average major leaguers for minor leaguers and have seen success much more rapidly than hanging on to your 'golden' prospects for too long.

Robert Birdsong said...

I really don't see how the Moore-Yost era will ever be looked upon as a positive by Royals fans even if the Royals make the playoffs this year. In past blogs Rany has pointed out franchises who achieved success faster and spent less money so I was surprised that he would be so forgiving if the Royals make the playoffs. Doing well after getting in might change my mind some, but just getting and immediately losing. No! The Chiefs have burned me out on that. The future after this year does not look that promising. Hope I'm wrong.

Kansas City said...

Rick and Robert both seem correct to me. Moore made some horrendous moves, Guillen, Jacobs and Yuni, which made no sense whatsover and he has taken a very long time to get the team in contention.

I guess the Royals have had such an awful history that one playoff appearance could be viewed as justifying the trade. I would not agree, because considering the money, the trade was lopsided in favor of Tampa at the time is was made.

Andrew J Overton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

Nothing justifies that trade short of a World Championship for the Royals. I still think they would have made the playoffs last year if they hadn't made it. Davis was so bad as a starter that he negated Shields to a large extent. Playing Francoeur for so long instead of just keeping Myers and playing him negated the rest, and then some. And the Royals still would have had the money they didn't pay Shields to get someone else.

That trade was indefensible. The only way Moore can justify it would be if the Royals won the World Series this year and Shields was the MVP of the Series.

John Viril said...

I was against the trade.

I thought it was a terrible deal. But, yeah. I if the Royals make the playoffs, you have to give it up for Moore.

Right now, the Royals are riding a hot streak and making us all positive. What I want to know is how we'll think when the glow of consecutive victories stops clouding our brains.

Scott McKinney said...

Interesting. Dayton Moore should be judged by the performance of his team today. Is that true of every day, or just June 13, 2014? What about a month ago today? Or a year ago today? Or two years ago today? If “the way the world worked” for Dayton Moore were actually judging him by the performance of his team today, he would have been fired many todays ago.

Long story short, the team is what it is. And we would like for the team to succeed. Is the team more likely to reach the promised land with Dayton Moore or another GM? Dayton Moore is bad at his job. We have 8 years of data which proves that. I’d rather roll the dice with the next guy than continue with a known incompetent. Let the next GM take this team to the next level.

Michael S. said...

Its funny how few comments a positive blog gets, especially when the team is doing well. Put out a "Fire Ned" or "Fire Dayton" blog and you'll get a ton of comments. It just amazes me how negative some Royals fans can be. Enjoy the good times people!! Its been a long time coming!! A win tonight and we lead the division!!!!

unashamedkansascitian said...

The question isn't whether the Shields deal is a win...The question is, why we're we in a position this late in DM's tenure that we had to make an "all-in" kind of move.
Granted, the mess DM inherited was created over decades, spanned a time when Glass, to the immediate detriment of his team, battled MLB's revenue structure, and was a top to bottom problem. That buys DM more time to turn things around than most GM's get.
Trying to be impartial, here's why we were forced "all-in"
1. DM has learned on the job how to be GM. That involves a learning curve, and a lot of earlier moves lacked the vision a more experienced GM would have had.
2. DM (and Glass) had to give fans something each season, and many years, had to give some legitimacy to revenue distribution arguments with other owners. With rare exception, that meant several overpaid, under - producing veterans. Thanks, arguably in part, to Glass's fight to redistribute revenue, rebuilding teams can race for cheap, young talent and rebuild quicker.
3. DM lacked an organizational structure for developing talent. The spotlight has been on the major league hitting coach, but the underlying problems seems to be a lack of qualified minor league instruction, and a lack of a unified, organizational philosophy regarding hitting and pitching.

Moving forward, is DM the right guy? I'm not sure. Maybe he's nothing more than a genius at scouting bullpen arms. But if he is given (and wisely uses) payroll flexibility, a legitimate sabermetric consultant, an organizational coaching philosophy overhaul guru, and just a wee bit more patience by fans, then.......awww, who am I kidding.
Maybe he's just Moses...leading us out of bondage, through the years of wandering in the wilderness, but not the one to actually lead us to the promised land...
But it feems (in a small way) like a victory that Perez, Gordon, Escobar, and Hoz aren't going to be Damon, Dye, Sweeney, and Beltran part II.

Jazzbumpa said...

I don't think you've properly characterized the Tigers' collapse.

Sure, the bull pen had been awful.

But Justin Verlander had been awful. Tonight, Max Scherzer was awful. The only reliable starter is Sanchez.

Defense had been awful.

Hitting/scoring has been awful.

I think the Tigers are actually at a negative run differential for the season after tonight's debacle.

They can't beat anybody except the Red Sox, and they lost the last game against them.

This isn't about offensive weakness at the SS position [a situation which might have been corrected.]

This is about failure to execute in almost every facet of the game. They aren't even fun to watch any more.

Royals are now in undisputed possession of 1st place, at least for a day.

Congrats to your team. Mine has come totally unzipped.

Sadly,
JzB

Jayboid said...

Not sure anybody can explain this team. Reminds me of a NFL team in August.

If the QB does this, the line looks good, the second year running back should do this, the schemes on defense are killer........blah blah blah

Then, either what happened with the Chiefs, or take the Texans. Nothing panned out, everything clicked for the Chiefs.

On paper especially now, the Royals team looks like a winner. Detroit and Cleveland have holes which can not be easily repaired. The Royals just have to keep hitting. Defense and an entire pitching staff, including some proven extra parts as Chen will be there.

but... a few weeks ago they looked so so lame.

Can't be explained.

John said...

OK, who is this team of impostors that stole the Kansas City Royals' uniforms and then started beating the crap out of everyone?

Steve Koester said...

Maybe it was dumb luck on Dayton's part but I'm just glad I don't have to watch six years of Will Francoeur and Jake Davies. The Greinke trade is looking pretty good right now too.

twm said...

Michael S: I think fans all enjoy watching the team win, but I also think many of us, and certainly myself, have trouble projecting this level of success forward. The team looked fringy before the season, then looked less than fringy for a good chunk of the season, and now have looked unbeatable for two weeks. Which is real? How can you jump up and down, screaming "hot damn, we're the best team in baseball" after the last 30 years have beaten all sense of hopefulness out of the fan base? Am I excited that the team is winning? You betcha! Am I enjoying the current hot streak? Of course! Do I expect it continue? Well, now, I don't really know. But you know what I do believe: it is DM's fault that after nine years I still don't know what to expect from his teams.

First Baptist Church, Stephens said...

I have to tell you the real reason for the turnaround. My 6-year-old son Joseph is magic.

In the middle of May, Joseph received an Alex Gordon t-shirt. He connected with Gordon because of the Gordon the Thomas and Friends engine, who is also #4. A couple of days later, Alex Gordon broke out of a slump and hit 2 HR. I showed Joseph the clip, and he decided Gordon is awesome and his favorite player. Since that game, he's basically been the best player in the league, hitting .350 and hitting HR at a 41-HR pace. Then, a couple of Saturdays ago, the Royals were on Fox, and Joseph watched with me. Gordon and Salvador Perez (his second-favorite) both hit HR and the Royals won 8-4. They have not lost since.

Michael S. said...

I've been excited since last year, twm. They won86 games, then shored up their two biggest weaknesses at 2nd and RF. Yes, they lost Santana, but replaced him with Vargas. Ventura was lights out in spring and has carried that into the regular season. They stayed around .500 even with the offense scuffling. You had to know the offense wouldn't be that bad all year.

If you want to look for negatives I'm sure you will find them. Me, I prefer to look for the good and great things this team does. And it keeps getting easier to find them!!